Where manners meet pigtails and freckles

Jacqueline Dugas is introducing her mother to Britney Spears.

"Mom, this is Britney Spears," the seven-year-old says, her cheeks smeared with blue sparkles and her hair pulled into pigtails. "Um, Britney, this is my mom."

Britney (played by Jacqueline's best friend, Alexi) sticks out her hand as a group of neighborhood kids watch the mock introduction intently.

"Smile and be friendly, Jacqueline," instructs Judi Vankevich, known around town as "The Manners Lady." "Good job. What you just did is very difficult for about 90 percent of the population."

The children clap enthusiastically - a lesson they just learned in showing respect.

Welcome to manners for minors. Classes like Ms. Vankevich's are sprouting up all across America. These are not cotillions filled with curtsies and dance cards. They stress everyday manners, the ones once learned around the dinner table.

They tackle tough issues such as: What if someone gives you a birthday present you already have? Or how do you take a phone message if you don't know how to write? Or what if, tee hee, you accidentally burp during dinner?

"Nothing is more attractive than someone with good manners," says Jacqueline's mother, Caroline Dugas. Watching Vankevich in action, she says she might enroll her two daughters in the class full time.

"It does seem like manners have gone by the wayside, replaced by computer skills," Ms. Dugas says. "Kids today talk back to you, won't sit still, and just don't listen. It's like they won't behave unless they know they are going to be entertained or rewarded."

Parents bemoaning ill-mannered children is nothing new. But experts say the reality is that manners are on the decline - losing out to a world more concerned with productivity than politeness. Technology is not only making communication faster, it's changing the way we communicate.

A recent study of workplace civility by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that "rudeness and insensitivity toward others have proliferated to new heights of thoughtlessness."

A majority of the study's 700 respondents blame this trend on the fragmentation of workplace relationships, facilitated by technologies such as voice mail, e-mail, and teleconferencing. One manager, for example, said that "emerging technology takes away the human face - it's easy to 'flame' somebody you don't have to look at." Others said that work and information overload gives them less time for the polite "niceties" of business life.

Decline of social skills

This is the environment an entire generation is growing up in. As a result, many experts say today's children - the first raised online - are missing manners.

"The tenor of the times has dictated to parents that [manners] are not as important as they used to be," says Frank Vitro, a psychology professor at Texas Woman's University in Denton, and an expert in children's social skills. "Parents are more focused on fostering assertiveness and self-confidence in children. That's a very important dimension that needs to be nurtured in a child, but certainly not at the expense of also developing proper social skills and proper etiquette and manners."

In addition, he says, parents are spending less quality interaction time with their children. "Their jobs and their other preoccupations and responsibilities have taken precedence over devoting more time to parenting activities."

Traditionally, family time has taken place around the dinner table, and some equate the steady loss of that event to the decline in children's manners.

Rosanne Thomas, founder of Protocol Consultants International in Boston, says a large number of her 20-something clients either were never taught etiquette at home or haven't practiced those skills in adulthood.

She remembers her own childhood, growing up in the 1950s and '60s, when her siblings would gather around the dinner table and her parents preached the importance of being polite, respecting elders, and not talking with a mouthful of food.

"The family dinner hour is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn basic manners. And at that age is the best time to teach these skills so they become second nature," she says. "But families are not eating together as much as they used to."

But some say teaching children manners may be missing the point. Real communication - in whatever form it takes - is what's needed to strengthen classrooms, workplaces, and homes.

"The so-called civility movement with the emphasis on good manners for the sake of good manners is somewhat misguided," says Stephen Steinberg, executive director of the National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "It's nice to be nice, it's good to be nice. But being nice is not an end itself. The question is: Are we communicating?"

Communication that's robust and productive, he says, will sometimes be "impolite, ill-mannered, loud, angry. But if it's productive in the long run, it will help us all live together."

Saying something, politely

But having productive and polite conversations is even better, say advocates of classes like Vankevich's. Her four-week program fills up fast with hesitant children and eager parents - many who try to teach these lessons at home, but need help reinforcing them in a more-realistic environment.

The key to teaching a child manners, Dr. Vitro says, is for parents to have good manners themselves and then explain why that's important. Vankevich insists on that as well. If a child is enrolled in her class, one of the parents must be, too.

"Manners are for grown-ups, too," she says, looking into the sea of young faces ranging in age from 3 to 13. That's something the kids love hearing. Some even point at their parents and giggle.

Ben Yuly, a blond-haired kindergartner who likes playing Monopoly and Life board games, knows why manners are important for both adults and children.

"Manners are great because you'll get more," Ben says as the parents in the room chuckle. His twin brother, John, is shyer. He simply says, "Manners make people feel good."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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